Monday, March 20, 2006

CHALLENGING DOGMA (Post #10): Anyone Who Disagrees that Secondhand Smoke Causes Chronic Disease Must Be Personally Discredited

In my experience in the tobacco control movement, I was taught to view people who disagreed with our opinion that secondhand smoke causes serious diseases like heart disease and lung cancer as evil, inferior, and depraved individuals who were tied to the tobacco industry in some way, who needed to be publicly discredited, and about whom one could not say anything positive if one wanted to remain a credible anti-smoking advocate.

Moreover, one could not associate in any way with "these people" because they were the "enemy" and one doesn't associate with the enemy.

I think readers can see this mentality now even in the blog itself. I have been repeatedly chastised for "associating" myself with groups like FORCES and even for merely linking to their web sites. The same slams against me were taken with respect to my expressing agreement with arguments made by certain individuals (e.g., Jacob Sullum) and groups that have in the past made arguments against some tobacco control policies.

When I defended Martha Perske against attacks laid at her character and integrity, I was told that I had been snookered and that she was simply a "tobacco mole."

I could give many more examples, but I think it is quite clear that this dogma -- that anyone who disagrees with our position on the health effects of secondhand smoke must be personally discredited -- remains very much alive in the tobacco control movement.

In fact, I have myself been on the receiving end of this dogma when I expressed opinions that challenged certain aspects of secondhand smoke health effects (e.g., the Helena and Pueblo studies and the effects of secondhand smoke in wide-open outdoor places). I was personally attacked and attempts were made to personally discredit me: I was called a tobacco stooge and a traitor, a fanatic, I was accused of taking tobacco industry money, and I was told that I was a discredit to the movement, all simply because I expressed an opinion in disagreement with the prevailing wisdom of the movement. People began asking what happened to me and why I moved over to the dark side.

The Rest of the Story

Well (luckily), this dogma never sat too well with me. First of all, if I went along with that dogma, I would have had to cut off communications and associations with a number of my friends and family members. Plus, it would have been quite boring at family gatherings if we all agreed on everything. ("I'm glad they banned smoking everywhere in Calabasas." "Oh yeah - so am I; smoking on streets and sidewalks is such a tremendous public health problem." "You're right - it only takes 20 seconds before it triggers fatal arrhythmias." "Glad those kids won't have to see any smokers." "Yeah - and I'm glad I won't want to have to work with any. My company is banning smokers.")

Second of all, the way I was brought up, we had a different term for someone with whom we strongly disagreed about a scientific issue. It wasn't bad or evil or inferior or depraved. It was simply...

That's it. We learned to respectfully disagree. But there was no need to disassociate from that person. Or to attack them. Or discredit them as an individual. Or avoid giving them any praise for any reason. Or from giving their address to someone (I guess the 1970s equivalent of linking to their web site). You didn't get thrown out of the family because you disagreed about a particular issue (unless you were a Red Sox fan among a family that hailed from the Bronx).

So you can imagine my shock and dismay when, in 1999, I asked Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) to post a clarification to an article I had written in order to make it clear that I was not maligning the integrity or character of 2 individuals with whom I disagreed and ANR refused to do so. The statement I asked them to post was a very brief one and it simply clarified the piece that I had written. The statement merely pointed out that these authors had not personally taken tobacco money - in other words, it presented the truth.

I was shocked when ANR told me that they would not accede to my request to make a clarification of my own article. The article had my name on it, for God sakes!

But you can imagine that I was even more shocked and dismayed when they provided the reason for their refusal: "it would be a mistake to state anything that would give him credence. ... I realize that your views on the matter are heart-felt and sincere, and that mere removal of your name from the paper, without more, will not be entirely satisfactory to you. But at this point ANR must put its political credibility ahead of what you consider to be your scientific credibility."

Since when was it a mistake to present the truth? Since when was it appropriate to disrespect an author's autonomy to write his own piece and to censor that piece so that it only says what the organization wanted it to say, even if the author completely disagreed and protested vigorously?

This was truly a wake-up call for me. If there was such a thing as a blog in 1999, I think The Rest of the Story might have been initiated back then. But I was still getting use to the idea of using an answering machine back then.

What's most sad to me is that this dogma has not changed in the past 7 years, and if anything, it has only been strengthened.

It took months before I successfully convinced ANR to simply make a small clarification to their attack on Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum so that it was clear they were not accusing him of being a former tobacco industry lawyer, which he was not. I was met with extreme resistance in making that request because the organization apparently didn't want to say anything positive about someone who they thought opposed tobacco control, even though it was the truth and their accusations were undocumented.

And of course, one of the most telling events was my being kicked off a tobacco policy discussion list-serve because I expressed disagreement with the prevailing wisdom of the movement. I had become an "interference" with the "quality" of the list-serve. Apparently, the quality of a tobacco control list-serve is measured by whether or not there is any disagreement and such disagreement is viewed as an interference with the functioning of the list-serve. When it occurs, censorship must be invoked.

After a while, I just had enough of this. Life is too short, and I'm not going to conduct my career in this way.

And so I'm pleased to today offer my 10th post of the Challenging Dogma series, and to dedicate this post to the memory of Rosalind Marimont, who passed away on March 15, 2004, almost exactly two years ago. Rosalind was a scientist for FORCES International for several years. She had been a scientist and statistician for the National Institutes of Health and along with Robert Levy of the Cato Institute, published a report questioning the government's claim that smoking kills more than 400,000 people each year.

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